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Behavior / 29.08.2019

By Anjum Altaf Position yourself at a traffic light or a roundabout in a Pakistani city today and you will witness every possible violation of the traffic code quite independent of the status of the violator and the presence of one or more policemen. The free-for-all encompasses the entire range from glitzy cars to rundown bicycles. Reflect a little on this seeming chaos and you might be able to infer that it all follows from one simple rule -- the desire of every individual to find the shortest route from here to there unimpeded by any constraints in the way.     Such a rule is called a shortcut and although I have reflected on this particular shortcut for some time and deem it important, I refrained from raising the issue out of a sense of its ranking in the list of catastrophes enveloping our country. It seemed akin...

Behavior / 09.08.2019

By Anjum Altaf Here is a question of pricing for you to consider. Imagine the following scenario: You are getting ready to travel from Lahore to Islamabad when by chance X stops by at your house. X is also making the same journey driving his own car. X offers to give you a ride and you accept. Consider X to be one of the following in different versions of this encounter: 1. Your student 2. Your good friend 3. Your brother-in-law with whom you are on speaking terms 4. A distant relative 5. A colleague at work 6. A neighbor whom you know but are not close to 7. A stranger who stopped at your house by mistake If you had traveled on your own as planned, the trip would have cost you Rs. 2,000. For every case of X (from 1 to 7) answer the following questions. You can combine the categories of X who, in your...

Analysis / 09.08.2019

By Anjum Altaf Almost everyone with more than a passing acquaintance of Naipaul has written about their interaction with him, deservedly so, since Naipaul was, without doubt, a great writer. The accounts range from the banal to the truly insightful. Among those of particular interest to Pakistanis, the one by Hanif Kureishi, himself a writer of repute, stands out for two reasons. First, it is one of the few that doesn’t display a knee-jerk reaction to Naipaul’s non-fiction, in particular his observations about Islamic countries. And second, because of Hanif Kureishi’s oblique relationship with Pakistan, the reflection has dispassionate things to say about the country as refracted through Naipaul’s lens. Hanif’s connection to Pakistan, for those who know, is through his father’s brother, the iconic Omar Kureishi -- legendary cricket commentator, popular manager of the test team, the person with whom PIA became the airline to fly with,...

Law / 06.08.2019

By Anjum Altaf I have lived in the US for long periods but earlier this year was the first time in over two decades that I stayed in the UK. I noticed immediately that the quality of edible products was much better in the latter although my purchases were from a corner store as compared to the US where I used to shop at a high-end organic market. This intrigued me no end since both are advanced countries with consumers conscious of what they eat. What might account for this noticeable difference in quality at least as far as taste was concerned? I decided on some amateur sleuthing and the findings revealed much of interest. While these may not account for the actual explanation, the conclusions are of enough general interest to merit discussion in Pakistan. The key to the puzzle may lie in the overarching principles governing...

Education / 31.07.2019

By Anjum Altaf People often insist that Pakistan’s lack of development requires investing in education. They should reconsider this relationship.  Consider the following arguments: In countries we consider developed today, mass education followed development not the other way around. Countries did not wait till they were fully educated before they began to develop. Rather, they began to develop which created the need for the spread of education. Great Britain became a global empire when there was relatively little mass education. Today, with universal education, it is a minor player in the global system. There is no linear relationship between education and development and certainly the former does not cause the latter. Apply this framework to British India. There was little mass education when the British took over but because there were so few they needed local intermediaries to help administer the colony in ways familiar to them. That was...

Politics / 25.07.2019

By Anjum Altaf It is difficult to support any political party in Pakistan for an obvious reason. They are so full of corrupt, uncaring and incompetent leaders that associating with them comes across either as opportunism or stupidity. Those who manipulate political leaders are even less to be admired. The kings and kingmakers have now led the country into very dangerous territory. It is a fact that Pakistan entered a moral decline early on when its value system was buffeted by Partition. Only one dimension of this decline need be mentioned to make the point -- the land grab. It ensued at the outset, initiated by bureaucrats entrusted with the trust of abandoned properties, was followed by the rampaging era of land mafias, and continued by the legalized involvement of state institutions. This created a worldview in which the only way to get ahead was the  manipulation...

Education / 18.06.2019

By Anjum Altaf I admire Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy for not giving up on education in Pakistan. In a recent article  (HEC -- stormy times up ahead, Dawn, May 25, 2019), he suggested a debate on the contrasting visions for higher education offered by Dr. Tariq Banuri, the current head of the HEC, and Dr. Atta-ur-Rahman, who held the position earlier. Since then Dr. Rahman has also articulated his vision (Higher education in turmoil, The News, June 1, 2019). It would therefore be a lost opportunity to not discuss the issue further given the centrality of education to the future of the country. Needless to say, in countries that hope to progress each succeeding generation must be better educated than the one preceding it, building and improving on the latter’s achievements. The terms of the debate are provided by the two contrasting visions as summarized by Dr. Hoodbhoy....

Politics / 11.06.2019

By Anjum Altaf The overwhelming triumph of the BJP in the recent elections is being interpreted by many as the death of a liberal, plural, and secular India. This is a misreading of history. Two distinctions are relevant. First, while post-1947 India was indeed characterised by the ideas of liberalism, pluralism, and secularism, these were ideals towards which Nehru wanted to move the country, not necessarily what India was actually like. Second, the long sweep of social history being unaffected by arbitrary dates on the calendar, there is no compelling reason to base our understanding of India solely on what transpired after 1947. Pakistanis should have no difficulty grasping the first point if they recall Jinnah’s much celebrated 1947 address in which he said: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Clearly, he wished...

Language/Meaning / 21.05.2019

By Anjum Altaf There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order. Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again -- almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu -- kaarner for corner and shaap for...